Russian Holy Water: Lake Baikal, Siberia

IF you’re going to Lake Baikal, you’re going to Olkhon Island. And if you’re going to Olkhon, you’ll be staying at Nikita’s Homestead. This is the babushka-doll logic of a Trans-Siberian itinerary, especially as the railway passes through Siberia itself. In theory, you are wandering one of the world’s great wide-open spaces. In practice, you are following the same route as every other foreigner aboard the trains here, and probably making all the same stops.

Most of the Russian passengers can also guess where you’re headed. “Baikal, yes?” asks my bunkmate on the overnight train from Ulan-Ude to Irkutsk. A travelling salesman called Pavel, he speaks almost no English. “Olkhon?” Delighted to be right, Pavel takes out his laptop and shows me a long documentary about the freshwater seals who live around the island.

Baikal is the oldest, deepest, clearest, most voluminous lake in the world, home to thousands of animal and plant species that exist nowhere else on Earth. It is also under constant threat of pollution and industrial exploitation. In the corridor of my carriage, I meet an environmental lawyer, Elena Agarkova, who works with Baikal Wave and other activist groups to oppose plans for oil pipelines and nuclear power stations on the lakeshore, as well as protest the continued toxic presence of the Baikalsk pulp and paper mill.

“Vladmir Putin says the mill is not polluting any more,” Elena tells me with withering irony, “because he swam in the lake and thought it looked fine.” For now, she says, Russian law is still on the side of the ecologists, even if the government tends to favour the interests of state-owned and affiliated businesses. “They only care about the bottom line, so our job is to convince them that they can profit more in the long term by keeping Baikal clean, protecting its world heritage status, promoting it as a special and beautiful place,’’ says Agarkov. In other words, tourism may be the best hope for the lake’s future.

From Irkutsk, it’s a rough five hours by minibus to the southwest edge of Baikal, though it might have taken double that if the wheelman hadn’t driven as though he’d just broken out of jail, in a getaway vehicle with no suspension, on roads with potholes like bomb craters. His face and haircut make him look ex-military, like most of the men in Siberia, and many of the little boys, too. The ferry crossing to Olkhon is a short respite, the narrow strait calm and clear, opening out to the vast blue of the northern horizon.

Both the Russians and the Chinese used to call this lake a sea. I expect a smell of salt that never comes, and instead I get the scent of pines from the forests on the island’s far side. The near side is a rolling green steppe, the only road a rocky track leading up the western flank, bouncing me against the roof of the bus. Khuzhir, the capital of Olkhon, is a village of just over 1000, many of them aboriginal Buryat tribespeople. Nikita’s Homestead is a frontier settlement unto itself. For 15 years, Nikita Bencharov and his wife Natasha have been building outwards from their house, constructing small wooden bungalows and dorms, a coffee shop and restaurant, a refectory-style diner and a ping-pong room.

Bencharov himself is a former Russian table tennis champion. He contracted encephalitis from a tick bite and moved to Olkhon to recover. When the first foreigners arrived after perestroika in the late 1980s, he invited them to stay, and slowly found himself establishing a service economy on an island of fishermen and farmers. He tells me some of this over lunch – three square meals a day are included in the price of accommodation, though I’m paying slightly less for a bed in a shared yurt out the back. Natasha Bencharov, who speaks better English, tells me the rest over a glass of herbal tea in the garden.

“It’s all a coincidence,” she says. “The political system changed, the tourists started to come, and we happened to be here. We didn’t want to run a hotel, it happened quite naturally, like a tree that only grows if the environment is OK.” This strikes me as a very Russian way to put it.“Maybe,” she says. “I think we have a different attitude to work. We can’t do it just for the money, like people in the west seem to do. Their life and their work are two separate things. Even when they come here on holiday, some of them are very … demanding.”

The Bencharovs have done their best to please, adding amenities and extras as requested. They offer tours of the island and cultural entertainments almost every evening. It’s a capitalist enterprise operating in communal spirit, and most of the guests I meet seem pretty happy: Danes, Aussies, Germans, Japanese,and Brits – all the allies and enemies of World War II – are drinking Baltika beer while a cheerful old Russian called Nikolai plays Buryat folk songs and Beatles hits on an accordion. Anyone who doesn’t like it can go and jump in the lake.

The lake, of course, remains the main thing to see and do on Olkhon Island. Frozen solid for half the year, it is still profoundly cold on a warm and bright morning in late summer and a swim of less than 10 seconds off Saraysky Bay is more than long enough to shrink my chances of ever having children. Drowning my screams underwater, I get a brief but powerful sense of floating in space, if space weren’t black but a pure and glowing blue.

This lake goes so deep that astronomers have installed a telescope at more than one kilometre beneath the surface to track the passage of neutrinos through the planet on their way across the universe. Running back to the beach, I am greeted by a young entrepreneur who charges swimmers 150 roubles [$5AUD] to warm up in his portable banya – a horse trailer converted into a Russian-style steam bath. Introducing himself as Dima, he pours on the heat and shows me how thrash myself with eucalyptus branches to improve my circulation.

“Make your body very strong,” he says, grinning. Dima represents one possible tourism-based future for the island and lake – tourists bring money, and money creates opportunity. It is hardly the worst that could happen, as Natasha Bencharov well knows. Her mother’s parents died in a gulag, she tells me. We are sitting on the cliff behind the homestead, beneath a single hardy larch tree that has withstood the Siberian winds. “Nikita is still afraid of the KGB,” she says. Few of their friends and neighbours can bring themselves to believe that the current Russian government will neither hurt nor help them.

Many islanders are poor and struggling, and the Bencharovs are now in a position to provide employment, or send paying customers of their own to other small local businesses. “When we first came here,” says Natasha, “there was no point in talking to the villagers about garbage. Often they just dumped it on the beach. Now if people see a mess they want to tidy it up, so the place looks nicer for guests.” It’s a trade-off, she says. “Tourists bring a lot of positive changes, but they also bring more pollution. They leave dirty camping sites, or they drive jeeps through the forest, where the tracks will stay for decades.”

Lake Baikal is a World Heritage site, and the wooded parts of Olkhon are classified as a national park, but for some visitors it’s also a playground, while the older native locals regard  the whole island as sacred. This evening, as the stars come out, we witness a live demonstration of that balancing act on the so-called Shaman Rock at nearby Cape Burkhan.

A spectacular limestone outcrop at the edge of the lake,  it was once considered too holy to touch – an earthly palace for the gods of heaven. On the top, in silhouette, I can see a group of tourists crawling all over it. Underneath them, at the base, is a shamanist priestess with a ritual drum. In the twilight, in the shadow of the rock, she is practically invisible, but even at this range I can clearly hear her chanting, praying, cleansing.

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